What has been happening in Syria has everything to do with Syria and relatively little to do with geopolitics. The arming of the Free Syrian Army rebels is perhaps understandable, even if I suspect it will come to haunt the West (remember those nice mujahideen fighting the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan? What could possibly go wrong with supplying them with RPGs and Stinger surface-to-air missiles?). But it seems inevitable that the conflict keeps being viewed through an anachronistic and dangerously misleading Cold War Redux lens. From this comes overheated rhetoric about how “The US Is Waging An All-Out Proxy War With Russia In Syria” and the dispatch of Russian ships becomes an effort to deter the West (how? Is Putin seriously going to put Russian troops in harm’s way?).
Let’s get serious here.
1. Russia has no great enthusiasm for Bashar Assad and his regime. To be sure, the Kremlin does not seem to have a particular problem with murderous dictators (but then again, nor often does the West), and a customer for Russian weapons is always welcome, but this has long been an alliance or rather affiliation of convenience. Russia gets arms sales and a notional naval base at Tarsus (which is of marginal real value) and a thorn in Iran’s side. Syria gets a certain degree of political cover. However, Putin is not bound to Assad, and is certainly not about to lose sleep or political capital on his behalf. In recent weeks, after all, Moscow has carefully been easing itself away from Assad’s side.
2. Russia has legitimate security interests in the region. There are Russian nationals in-country, from military advisers to civilians (that small naval deployment makes much more sense as a potential evacuation force than some political lever, not least as it includes a couple of troop transports which are largely empty). Tarsus is not really a serious naval base, more a statement of a desire to have a toehold in the Mediterranean, but nonetheless Russia can hardly be expected not to care about its fate. Syria is also, as I note above, regarded as a counterweight to Iran, which is challenging Russia along its southern borders.
3. Russia’s biggest fear is not regime change as such but the anarchy and Islamism likely to follow. In conversations with Russian foreign ministry and security sector personnel, time and again I have heard the refrain that the West is great at destroying regimes but terrible at managing the outcome. And they have a point: I find it hard to see Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and (although the Western role was far, far less significant there) Egypt as encouraging case studies. As I’ve written elsewhere, what Moscow fears above all is chaos and the rise of pro-Iranian Islamism in Syria. And if anything that prospect is looking more and more likely.
4. Russia is fed up. This is not so much an excuse as an observation. Moscow feels — with good reason — that it was cheated by the West (above all, the USA) over Libya, a bait and switch that saw it agree to a limited UN resolution that was then (ab)used to justify eliminating Gaddafi. Again, it’s not that the Russians were that fond of the erratic old butcher, but they are proud enough not to enjoy feeling that they were manipulated to see him ousted. Add to that the mess that has followed, and this helps explain some of their particular intransigence over Syria.
Overall, then, I do believe that Moscow feels that Assad is likely to fall and is preparing for that eventuality, even though it hopes that he will survive, whether through military success or political deals. Evacuation plans have been drafted and I hear that Syria is now having to pay up front and in full for any further shipments, whether of military materiel or anything else. The abortive invitation for talks issued to Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, may have represented a ploy precisely to make him look unreasonable (as he predictably placed unrealistic preconditions on any talks) but was also a major step away from its previous position of refusing to grant any legitimacy to the opposition.
That does not mean that the Russians are happy with the way things have developed or feel any particular urge to play nice. (Relations with Turkey, which had been increasingly positive, are taking a hit.) But it does mean that it is very unlikely that they are going to put any political capital, let alone military muscle, into saving him. The best they are likely to offer is that comfy dacha in Barvikha if Assad manages to get out alive…